Delayed Pain After Car Accidents: Should You See a Doctor?

Delayed pain after a car accident is an injury symptom that begins 24 to 48 hours after the incident occurred. Sometimes it can take even longer. Delayed pain can mask the symptoms of a severe injury, so you should see a doctor immediately after a car crash or as soon as pain develops.

Up to 50 million people a year sustain non-fatal injuries in car crashes, many of which result in long-term disabilities. Visible injuries, such as scrapes and bruises, are ultimately easier to diagnose and treat than delayed pain beneath the skin’s surface.. Even if you feel fine after a car accident, you must still visit a medical doctor to ensure you haven’t sustained any hidden injuries.

If you or someone you love is struggling with pain after a car accident, take the time to learn more about common injuries with delayed pain symptoms. Discover which symptoms can indicate a serious injury—and how ignoring these symptoms can negatively impact your health and ability to seek financial compensation.

What Could Cause Delayed Pain After an Accident?

The trauma of car accidents is a leading cause of delayed pain. Shock and adrenaline kick in at the time of the collision, numbing your body to the physical pain of an injury. In the moments after a collision, your body goes into overdrive, doing its best to protect and heal itself. Here are three factors that cause delayed pain after a car accident.

1. Shock

Shock is a physical and psychological response to trauma. Physically, shock is a sudden drop in blood pressure. It causes blood vessels in your hands and feet to narrow to reallocate blood flow to your vital organs. Psychologically, shock is a stress response that creates a mental disconnect from a situation, almost like you’re watching the event from above rather than being present.

When you’re in shock, blood flow is redirected to crucial organs. Lack of blood flow may cause you to lose sensation in areas like your hands and feet that could be prone to injury during an accident. When you experience loss of sensation combined with mental detachment, you likely won’t register the severity of an accident injury when it occurs. Your body only maintains a state of shock for a short period, such as a few hours.

2. Adrenaline and the “Fight or Flight” Response

In addition to entering a state of shock, your body will also release the hormone adrenaline after a car accident. Adrenaline, referred to as the “fight or flight” chemical, is a system to keep you alive in what you perceive as a dangerous situation.

Adrenaline forces your body into self-preservation mode, which means it will physically shut down any systems that aren’t working to protect you. For instance, tissue repair is temporarily halted when adrenaline is pumping. Adrenaline masks personal injury and pain by limiting pain signals sent to and from the brain.

Adrenaline shifts your blood flow from your organs to your muscles. With more blood pumping into vulnerable muscles, you’re likely to feel stronger and less aware of any injuries. This response is temporary and your adrenaline levels will likely return to normal within a few hours to one day.

3. Inflammation

Inflammation is one of the main causes of delayed pain after a car accident. First, shock and adrenaline shut down systems like tissue repair, essentially fooling your brain into thinking you’re not injured. Once these effects wear off, your body responds to physical damage by creating inflammation or swelling at the injury site.

Inflammation increases blood flow to an injury. Chemicals in your blood help protect and strengthen the area from further harm. You might be able to feel inflammation before you see it by redness or warmth in a specific area. As inflammation increases over several hours or days, it creates swelling that can push on nerve cells and alert you to the pain.

How Long After a Car Accident Can Injuries Show Up?

Injuries can show up several weeks after a car accident. Mild injuries will usually be apparent right away, such as bruises or cuts. Injuries beneath the skin’s surface, like a torn muscle or traumatic brain injury (TBI), can take longer to physically manifest. It can take 24 to 48 hours for initial symptoms to appear and one to two weeks for full delayed pain symptoms.

man holding neck in pain sitting at computer.

What to Do if You Develop Pain Hours or Days After an Accident

You should visit a doctor immediately if you develop pain hours or days after a car accident. Medical attention is the only way to properly locate, diagnose, and treat the source of your delayed pain. Without medical care, your injury may only worsen over time. Not only will this incur steeper medical bills, but hesitating to seek medical attention may also jeopardize your injury claim.

Not seeking medical care within the days or weeks following an accident makes it difficult to prove to the insurance company that your injury resulted from the crash. You will still require treatment options, such as surgery or medication, but you may be left footing the bill by yourself—or worse, battling insurance over the remainder of your payment.

Even if you don’t think your injuries are serious, do what’s best for your health and ability to seek compensation and receive medical attention as soon as possible. Your provider can perform physical and diagnostic tests to accurately diagnose your delayed pain, such as an X-ray, MRI, and CT scan. If you’ve been injured, you can seek financial compensation for your medical care.

The Most Common Injuries with Delayed Symptoms

Dozens of people struggle with delayed pain from car accidents each day. While the most common injuries with delayed symptoms are physical, it’s important to realize that delayed car accident injuries can also be emotional. Emotional injuries like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common examples of delayed emotional trauma that can emerge in the weeks following a crash.

Common injuries with delayed symptoms include:

Whiplash

Whiplash is one of the most common causes of neck pain after a car accident. A whiplash injury occurs when energy from a collision forces the neck and skull to rapidly move forward and backward or side-to-side. This unexpected motion can stretch and tear many structures in the neck, including:

  • Muscles
  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Facet joints
  • Nerves

General symptoms of whiplash include headache, dizziness, trouble sleeping, neck pain and stiffness, and shoulder pain and swelling. Due to the body’s natural inflammatory response, stiffness and swelling caused by a whiplash injury can be delayed by 24 hours to up to eight days after the accident.

Soft Tissue Injuries

A soft tissue injury consists of damage to the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves in the body. Common soft tissue injuries after a car accident include sprains, which are tears in ligaments, and strains, which are tears in muscles and tendons. Much like whiplash, the inflammatory response that protects these muscles upon impact can mask pain symptoms for several days.

Symptoms of soft tissue injuries include:

  • Pain or tenderness at the injury site
  • Redness or warmth at the injury site
  • Muscle spasms or cramping
  • Limited range of motion
  • Weakness
  • Bruising
  • Swelling

Back and Spinal Injuries

Back pain after a car accident can indicate a severe injury to your vertebrae, spinal discs, or muscles. Back injuries such as a herniated disc gradually put pressure on surrounding nerves, which can alert you of the injury days after an accident occurred. The pinched nerve is what will send you to the doctor, but the initial injury was the herniated disc in your spine.

Typical symptoms of a back and spinal injury include:

  • Neck pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Soreness and stiffness
  • Limited range of motion or mobility
  • Sharp pain when moving or coughing
  • Redness or warmth at the injury site
  • Pain or tenderness at the injury site
  • Muscle spasms or cramping
  • Numbness or tingling

A spinal cord injury can result in permanent paralysis. It’s essential to visit a medical professional if you believe you’ve suffered any type of back injury.

Doctor examining MRI scan.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a closed head injury that occurs when the brain is rattled around inside of the skull. During a car accident, the rapid movement of the vehicle can cause your brain to slam against your skull wall, damaging brain tissue and creating bleeding, bruising, or excess fluid.

Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury include:

  • Headache
  • Emotional changes
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Loss of memory (amnesia)
  • Decreased consciousness
  • Blurry or double vision

A TBI can be life-threatening when left untreated, as it can cause internal bleeding inside the brain or a fatal blood clot. It can take hours or even days for the brain to register damage in certain areas. For instance, cognitive symptoms like memory loss often take several days to register due to the location of the damage inside of the brain.

Concussions

A concussion is a mild form of a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the skull that damages the brain. Concussions are common in auto accidents when a victim’s head slams into the steering wheel or airbag upon impact. Symptoms of a concussion include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Emotional changes
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Fainting or losing consciousness
  • Temporary memory loss (amnesia)
  • Pain at the base of the skull
  • Nausea and vomiting

Much like a more severe TBI, a concussion may have delayed symptoms. Fainting or loss of consciousness will typically occur at the accident scene, other symptoms like headaches or confusion may appear weeks or even months post-accident.

Delayed Symptoms to Look For

If you’ve recently been involved in an auto accident, there are several delayed symptoms to watch for in the hours, days, and weeks following your accident. Many of the following symptoms can indicate one of the five common delayed injuries listed above. Some of these symptoms—like stomach pain—are a sign of other injuries that can be life-threatening.

Take a look at the delayed symptoms to watch for and visit a medical professional immediately if any of the following feel familiar.

Behavioral Changes

Traumatic car accidents can cause victims a lot of stress, but certain behavioral changes indicate a serious injury rather than a trauma response. Behavioral changes typically include unexplained mood swings, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These changes can be a sign of a concussion or more serious traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Tingling or Numbness

Delayed pain after an accident often includes tingling, numbness, or a pins-and-needles sensation in the extremities like the hands and feet. These sensations are typically caused by nerve damage, such as a pinched nerve. If you begin to feel numbness in your arms or legs, you may be experiencing more serious neck or spinal damage.

Back Pain

Back pain is an umbrella term that refers to dull, shooting, throbbing, or radiating pain in your back. It’s typically caused by damage to your muscles, ligaments, vertebrae, and nerves. For instance, lower back pain may be a sign of a herniated disc or damaged intervertebral discs in your spine. Middle and upper back pain may indicate a whiplash injury or a more serious spinal cord injury.

Shoulder or Neck Pain

Delayed shoulder or neck pain usually involves tenderness and swelling at the injury site along with a limited range of motion. The structures in this area are all connected so shoulder or neck pain can be attributed to back injuries like a herniated disc. Most often, shoulder and neck pain is caused by delayed whiplash injury symptoms.

Dizziness

Delayed dizziness creates a woozy sensation as if your head and body are moving in circles causing loss of balance. If you begin to experience dizziness days after a car accident, it can be a sign that you’ve experienced a concussion or TBI. These types of head injuries impact the way your brain communicates with the rest of your body and throw you off balance.

Headaches

Headaches are one of the most common side effects of being involved in a car accident. If a headache continues days or weeks after a collision or becomes worse over time, there’s a chance you’ve sustained a more serious injury. Headaches can indicate a neck injury like whiplash, a brain injury like a concussion, or severe brain damage like a blood clot. If ignored, a blood clot can be fatal.

Stomach Pain

Mild bruises from a seat belt are common in auto accidents. If the bruise becomes larger or you feel additional abdominal pain, you may have suffered an injury that caused internal bleeding. Internal bleeding can be a sign of a serious organ injury which may require surgeries to fix. The sooner you address this delayed pain symptom, the better.

Empty hospital bed in hospital room.

What Could Happen if You Ignore Delayed Pain?

Nothing good can come out of ignoring delayed pain. In the best-case scenario, your injury may not worsen, but it could cause significant or chronic pain over time. In the worst-case scenario, your injury may be fatal. With these odds, it’s always wiser to seek medical attention to check for any hidden injuries.

Ignoring delayed pain symptoms can mean that when the damage is too bad to ignore, the statute of limitations for your case is over. In Kentucky, the statute of limitations is two years from the date of the accident. After this period, you cannot seek financial compensation for your injury expenses.

If you delay medical attention, you may unintentionally give the insurance company that you are trying to sue ammunition against your injury case. They may argue that the pain you are experiencing cannot be as bad as you claim, because you did not immediately seek treatment options. Consequently, they may attempt to minimize or deny your claim.

How a Car Accident Attorney Can Help People with Delayed Auto Accident Pain

If you or a loved one have begun to experience delayed pain after a car accident, now is the time to take action. With treatment like medication or physical therapy, you can fully heal from the trauma of a car accident. If you do not take medical and legal action, your pain symptoms and medical bills may haunt you for years to come.

After an accident that was partially or no fault of your own, contact a car accident attorney. A lawyer can help point you in the right direction to gain medical care and compile a persuasive argument to secure compensation from your insurance company or the insurance of the at-fault driver. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn more about how we can help after a crash.

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David G. Bryant is certified to practice in all state courts in Kentucky, and federal courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky, Southern District of New York, Southern District of West Virginia, Northern District of Ohio, Middle District of Tennessee, and Western District of Pennsylvania. He is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.